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August 16, 2015 / conservadox

Dvar Torah-Shofetim

“At the mouth of two witnesses…shall he that is to die be put to death” (Deut. 17:6).  This means that under halacha no sentence of death can be passed without two witnesses actually testifying.

Because of this and other safeguards, a halachic execution would rarely (if at all) happen even in a Jewish theocracy.  The Mishnah states:

“A Sanhedrin that puts a man to death once in seven years is called a murderous one. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says ‘Or even once in 70 years.’ R. Tarfon and R. Akiva said, ‘If we had been in the Sanhedrin no death sentence would ever have been passed’

But contrary to what some believe, this does not mean that Judaism is anti-death penalty. There is a doctrine called horat shaah (“teaching for the hour”) which allows a king or even judge to punish without other halachic authorization.  For example, Joshua executed Achan for theft without witnesses, apparently because the Jews had suffered a major military defeat because of the theft (looting the defeated city of Jericho) (see Joshua 7).

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